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Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca

 

Maureen Dowd

NY Times, Mar. 9, 2010

“Couldn’t Mecca, I asked the royals, be opened to non-Muslims during the off-season? The phrase off-season, as it turns out, is not conducive to an interfaith dialogue.”

I was tempted to turn my abaya into a black masquerade cloak and sneak into Mecca, just hop over the Tropic of Cancer to the Red Sea and crash the ultimate heaven’s gate.

Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described “amateur barbarian,” was an illicit pilgrim to the sacred black granite cube. He wore Arab garb and infiltrated the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba, the “center of the Earth,” as he called it, in the Saudi city where the Prophet Muhammad was born.

But in the end, it seemed disrespectful, not to mention dangerous.

So on my odyssey to Saudi Arabia, I tried to learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11 in a less sneaky way. And that’s when the paradox sunk in: It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam.

You don’t have to be a Catholic to go to the Vatican. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to the Western Wall (although if you’re a woman, you’re squeezed into a slice of it at the side). You don’t have to be Buddhist to hear the Dalai Lama speak — and have your picture snapped with him afterward.

A friend who often travels to Saudi Arabia for business said he thought that Medina, the site of Muhammad’s tomb, was beginning to “loosen up” for non-Muslims. (As the second holiest city in Islam, maybe they needed to try harder.) But the Saudis nixed a trip there.

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